I’m a bad hoosier: I don’t grow tomatoes


One of my great shames as a Hoosier is that I have never had a vegetable garden of my own. We had one every year when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, but I have fallen short as an adult. Nearly every family in my neighborhood had a backyard garden filled with tomatoes, green beans, and squash. One year, my parents even planted a few stalks of corn.

Every spring, we dreamed of eating garden-fresh tomatoes as big as a baby’s head and barrels of green beans. We told stories about tomato sandwiches of years past and zucchinis you could carve into a canoe.

But by the middle of August, we were so sick of fresh vegetables, we gave them away like a veggie fire hose. My dad used to take grocery sacks full of vegetables to his office and leave them in the mailroom for anyone to take.

Except several other people had the same idea, so by the end of the day, the mailroom looked like a farmers market had exploded. It turned into a little swap meet, and my dad would come home with green bell peppers, zucchini, and once, a huge summer squash.

This was not a good time for me. I hated all forms of squash, as well as green peppers, so this was not as nice as you might think.

We tried giving our tomato surplus to the neighbors, but they refused and tried to get us to take some of theirs. Once, some friends and I tried giving tomatoes away to cars that were driving by, but we often missed since we didn’t know how to time our throws. We quit when one finally connected, and the guy slammed on his brakes.

Years later, I decided to continue with the Hoosier tradition and try to grow my own vegetables. I wanted to start with tomatoes, just like my parents. I knew a few tricks and was sure we could have a bountiful harvest. At least enough to give some of the local drivers.

That fall, I built a large box with 2×12 boards, put a mesh grate on the bottom to prevent burrowing critters, filled it with rich Indiana topsoil, and waited for spring.

But I wasn’t able to get to the home and garden store until mid-April, and all the tomato plants were gone. Except I found one scraggly-looking plant hiding shyly behind a stack of ceramic pots and brought it home with me like Charlie Brown rescuing that sad little Christmas tree.

This is a special tomato plant, I declared. I was going to shower it with love and care, it was going to thrive, and we were going to grow the biggest and most tomatoes in the entire neighborhood.

I had read that when a tomato plant starts to flower, if you pop off the flowers for the first few weeks, the plant will concentrate on growing a lot more tomatoes to replace the few you removed.

When the plant sprouted a couple of small buds, I popped them right off, burnishing my thumb to a deep green. I was off to a great start.

Then, nothing.

No more flowers, no more tomatoes. Nada. The plant didn’t even get bigger.

My mother-in-law came over for a visit one day, and I asked her about my plant. Why wasn’t it working? It was the first of May, why wasn’t I seeing any tomatoes?

She looked at it and said, “Because that’s a marigold.”

My green thumb wilted and dropped off, so I gave up growing tomatoes for several years.

One year, I grew upside-down tomatoes. That’s where you drill holes in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket, fill it with soil, and then put the tomato plants in the holes. Hang the bucket outside, water it from the top, and the plants will hang upside-down, so you don’t need to support them as they fill up with tomatoes. It was OK, but we weren’t overrun with the cornucopia of tomatoes that I had hoped.

That was my first and last year to grow tomatoes. For several years, I have threatened to grow them again, and every year, my wife talks me out of it.

“Gardens attract rodents and rodents attract snakes,” she says.

She knows I hate snakes, and so every year, I skip the tomatoes once more. Then I conveniently forget about Florida’s circle of life and declare that I’m going to grow tomatoes again until I’m reminded that our backyard will look like that scene from Indiana Jones.

This year, I’m confident the upside-down tomatoes may solve this problem. I can hang the bucket so the rodents can’t reach it. That will discourage them, and they’ll leave the tomatoes alone. That will keep the snakes from showing up, and my tomato harvest can grow to a plentiful bounty.

I hope so because a lot of cars drive past my house.